Messiaen: Chronochromie, Sept Haļkaļ; Bartok: The Miraculous Mandarin

Pierre-Laurent Aimard, piano; Edinburgh Festival Chorus, Bamberg Symphony Orchestra/Nott

Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 9 September 2011 4 stars

Bamberg Symphony (Photo © Richard Haughton) The Bamberg Symphony Orchestra is enjoying a burgeoning reputation under its British-born conductor Jonathan Nott. Critics have revelled in their recordings of Mahler in particular, so their appearance as the closing act of this year’s Festival affords a welcome chance to hear them in the flesh. That said, I dare say that I was not the only one who needed to look up Bamberg on a map (it’s in Bavaria, about 70 km from Bayreuth).
There are times when one encounters a sparsely peopled auditorium and feels the need to seek explanations, to complain, to critique, or to cajole the missing multitudes. Other times the explanation is plain—one has to walk through it, as with last winter’s snow. Tonight, though, in the face of a thinnish turnout (I’d guess around 60–70%), one can sit back and be grateful for the funding model that enables such a challenging programme to take its place alongside the more popular fare on offer earlier in the Festival.

Certainly the two Messiaen works chosen fit perfectly with this year’s east-meets-west theme. With the Yogyakarta Palace gamelan fresh in the memory, it was a remarkable experience to hear Chronochromie contextualized, and to reflect on the translation process that recreates something of the ambience along with the timbres of the older form, while exploiting the structuring opportunities that conformity to western tuning affords. The percussion writing here is significantly advanced from Turangalîla, where Messiaen’s inheritance from Stravinsky is more clearly apparent. In Chronochromie the initial allegiance is more to Webern, the regular rhythm of the Introduction’s klangfarbenmelodie nodding in that direction as though marking a point of departure.

Actually the lower winds on this occasion added a little local colour of their own with some sketchy intonation at times, though Nott achieved an impressive metrical precision in shaping an elegant reading.
Although the forces for Sept Haïkaï are much reduced over the full symphony orchestra called for by Chronochromie, the ensemble is still rather grandiose if one thinks of the haiku as being a poetic form noted for the extreme distillation required by the customary seventeen-syllable diction and the corresponding economy of material means with which the text is realized. Messiaen soaked up Japan in his inimitable style during a visit prior to composing: the birdsong generating melodic content was collected – among other sites – at Mt Fuji, but more interestingly, it is the ritualistic aspects of Buddhism and of traditional theatre that infuses the formal design which gives the work its distinctively evocative atmosphere in performance. Intriguingly, Messiaen’s rhythmic procedures here have important similarities to Philip Glass’s use of additive metre; how very different their respective outcomes sound!

A specific reduction in the percussion section meant that of the six players, five were solely playing tuned instruments – a large set of tubular bells, crotales, xylophone, marimba, alpine bells – with the sixth playing an array of semi-pitched gongs: a distinctively beautiful adjunct to Messiaen’s piano writing, its characteristic blend of fiery flourish and languorous melody brought off with great élan by Pierre-Laurent Aimard.

After the interval, a rare opportunity to hear the complete Miraculous Mandarin. Having witnessed Kenneth MacMillan’s enchanting appropriation of Mahler as performed by Scottish Ballet earlier in the festival, this was an occasion for pondering what a staging might bring to Bartok’s remarkable score. The full version has much to recommend it, on this performance: the brilliance that anyone familiar with the suite will already be anticipating is contextualized by a broader pacing. In Nott’s hands this allowed scope to generate a climax of astonishing, sweeping power driven by luxuriant swathes of brass texture—and, of course, some raucous percussion. His handling of the big picture was tremendously impressive. I should mention that the Edinburgh Festival Chorus had a bizarrely short passage to contribute, but its effect—again, beautifully modulated—was out of all proportion to its duration.

By Peter Cudmore

Photo © Richard Haughton